Visitors to downtown Tempe probably will be forgiven if they momentarily look past the century-old red brick buildings to catch a glimpse of construction cranes towering into the sky.
But the distraction might not be momentary.
Once 30-story condo towers loom over Tempe, will visitors see the place for its history or for its modern glass and steel buildings?
And will owners of the more understated red brick buildings continue to take advantage of the historic charm to lure visitors? Or will they exploit the real estate and cash in on the chance to build more 30-story buildings?
And what if these massive condo towers open their doors to a public that decides Arizona living should be characterized by big yards and a pool — not a high-rise?
Anxiety has come with every change in downtown Tempe over the years, but today’s unprecedented rate and scale of change has elevated those concerns. Some fear the bold effort to transform downtown Tempe may destroy its history and the sense of place that now lures builders, merchants and shoppers.
One of Tempe’s more notable merchants for decades thinks it’s already too late to save downtown from larger forces.
Gayle Shanks ran her Changing Hands Bookstore downtown for nearly 30 years but left in 2000 as new development brought in bookstore powerhouse Borders.
“Greedy” developers ruined the quaint atmosphere, she claims.
“They just figured there was a little gold mine there and they were ready to mine it,” Shanks said. “The dollar was the primary focus, not the people. It just imploded.”
Tempe’s been widely criticized for not doing enough for small businesses that give downtown its character.
Restaurant owner Michael Monti is one of the strongest critics. But he and other downtown followers say many failed or upset businesses owners have only themselves to blame for falling behind trends in their industries.
“Sometimes independent businesses like mine are their own worst enemies,” said Monti of the landmark Monti’s La Casa Vieja restaurant. “Independent businesses need to recognize contemporary standards and rise to them.”
Residents’ fears go beyond corporate domination of mom-and-pop shops.
They include intimidation from big buildings, congestion and loss of history.
And one of the biggest fears is that the unprecedented boom is happening too rapidly.
Tempe has the Valley’s oldest continuously inhabited structure, Monti’s La Casa Vieja, according to the city. And the adjacent Hayden Flour Mill was the state’s longest continuously operated industrial site until its 1998 closing.
But some longtime downtown watchers raised concerns the value of land could doom small historic buildings.
“The biggest fear I have is when you can build a 300-foot building, no small building is safe,” said Rod Keeling, executive director of the Downtown Tempe Community.
The historic buildings create an authentic feeling money can’t buy, Keeling said.
He’s called for an ordinance that would block buildings taller than 50 feet on sites with historic elements. That would severely limit profits for new buildings on historic sites.
Mayor Hugh Hallman scoffs at the notion Tempe hasn’t done enough for history. The city has saved several historic buildings during his two years in office and has established height guidelines to protect key properties, he said.
Keeling said he’s not concerned about the political climate today, but he fears future city leaders won’t feel as strongly about preservation. Currently, a majority vote of the City Council could doom a building, he said.
Though many downtown buildings are on the National Registry of Historic Places, the designation doesn’t trump a property owner’s right to tear it down.
Once the building is gone, Keeling said, the owner could lobby the city for more height.
Keeling’s most urgent concern is the Vienna Bakery building, dating to 1893. Developer Don Plato bought it along with the adjacent Fifth and Mill building at the intersection’s northeast corner.
Plato planned to open a Gelato Spot there, but he opened stores elsewhere in the Valley as he instead explored the idea of knocking down buildings for an 11-story condo project, Mill Avenue Lofts.
Plato said the outcry made it too difficult, so he decided to keep the buildings and lease them out.
“I’ve kind of lost my drive because of the politics,” he said.
Plato questions the value of the Vienna Bakery building as a historic property. Only the front wall’s arched windows remain. The building’s south half was demolished years ago, and nearly everything else was rebuilt after a fire.
“It’s so young that it doesn’t mean (anything),” Plato said. “To think that building does have any historic value is just asinine to me.”
Architect Stu Siefer’s Tempe firm was perhaps the most active in downtown restoration and new projects in the 1970s and 1980s, and he laments how big buildings are dwarfing charming old ones.
He was involved with some downtown planning at the time and envisioned a limit at eight stories — not 30.
“I think it’s going to be shocking for people to see buildings of this size,” Siefer said. “I would have preferred to see the density evolve and have the ability to know in increments if we have the ability to absorb the growth.”
HEIGHT, SCALE AND ECONOMICS
Civic boosters get excited about 30-story condo towers in Tempe. They often point out Tempe’s skyline will become the second most impressive in the Valley, behind only Phoenix.
That poses the question: Are the buildings essential to Tempe or are they a case study in skyscraper envy?
According to Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based author and commentator on urban and social issues, “What makes Tempe great is you have nice places to walk and it’s human scale.
“I don’t think adding a bunch of tall buildings makes it a great environment.”
Kotkin visits the Valley frequently and sees a demand for some urban condos in Tempe, in downtown Scottsdale and along the Camelback corridor.
Yet he’s skeptical of the nationwide trend to build high-rise condos in downtowns, especially in Sunbelt cities.
Developers usually overbuild and create a bubble in the market, Kotkin said. That means a portion of the swanky condo towers could turn into more modest housing for students.
Rob Melnick, associate vice president of economic affairs at Arizona State University, disagrees with Kotkin’s density and height worries. Downtown must take big steps for the city to survive financially, he said.
“And the alternative being what?” he said. “Being what you have now?”
Keeling and others argue the tall buildings will build up the tax base so the otherwise built-out city won’t have to raise residential taxes.
Melnick acknowledges developers could build too much, too fast and their new buildings might sit idle for some time.
But he’s convinced the ambitious downtown plan will work out even if some developments fail initially.
“Twenty years from now when this place is built out, the people who were behind it are going to look like friggin’ geniuses,” Melnick said. “People are going to forget all the rancor and they’re going to be celebrating.”